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After 12 Years, Mubarak May Name a Vice President--or Two : Egypt: President inches closer to full democracy as public increasingly blames nation’s woes on regime.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The conventional wisdom here is that former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser scoured the nation for a man simple-minded enough to present no political threat, if selected vice president. He found Anwar Sadat.

Sadat, it is said, surveyed the landscape and named Hosni Mubarak as his vice president. And Mubarak, who ascended to the presidency with Sadat’s assassination in 1981, never named a vice president.

“He never found anyone more stupid than he was,” says a Cairo taxi driver, cheerfully recounting the oft-told tale as he squirted his vehicle through the belching, honking mess of the summer Egyptian streets.

So much for conventional wisdom. Mubarak--nominated last week to lead an unprecedented third term of a regime that is a cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy--has put out the word that he probably will name a vice president for the first time in 12 years of his presidency.

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In what would be a major realignment of the dominion of the army over every facet of Egyptian life since 1952, Mubarak further is said to be considering naming two vice presidents: one from the army, as usual, and one a civilian, in recognition of Egypt’s evolution from its beginnings four decades ago in revolutionary socialism to the semblance of a modern Middle Eastern democracy.

Whether the contemplated moves are a measure of careful political calculation or desperation is anybody’s guess. Mubarak’s Egypt has landed in troubled times, and, among an increasingly disillusioned public, his regime is taking the brunt of the blame.

The move toward a market economy has driven up the prices of formerly subsidized goods and left thousands of young graduates who once would have been hired at government companies now among the unemployed. Nearly everyone grumbles about a network of corruption so vast that it is virtually impossible to complete a small transaction with the government, from handling a parking ticket to picking up an overseas shipment, without paying a bribe.

Disappointment and fear for the future have spread from the slums that swelter in the heart of the city to a growing share of the middle class; with the difficult economy and a rising wave of Islamic fundamentalist violence, even the middle class see their own futures in peril.

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“Mubarak has traced himself a road and shoved everybody else with him on this road, up to the time when it explodes,” said Ibrahim Shukry, head of the Socialist Labor Party, closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ramadan Ibrahim, a bartender in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, spoke perhaps for millions of Egyptians when he said he can no longer afford to live. “I end up thinking a slave has a better life than mine,” he said. “He doesn’t worry but for one thing, his freedom. He doesn’t know that if he got it, he would be just like me, maybe worse.

“I think maybe the government wants us to have endless problems so they can have the playground all for themselves,” he added. “Well, they can keep their playground. But let us live and try to make something out of our lives. If Mubarak wants a third term, let him have it. Things will not change much in six years anyway. Except I may become a thief to cover my family’s needs. And what is one more thief?”

For the first time in Egypt’s history, the opposition parties were united in opposing the president’s nomination to a new term. Huge banners in front of the fundamentalist-dominated lawyers’ syndicate recently said in striking red Arabic letters, “No. No. No. No for reelection. No for violating the constitution. No for defrauding the public’s will.”

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At an office a few blocks away, Mamdouh Beltagui, head of the state information service and a senior official with Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, smiled mildly. “We welcome this free expression. Democracy needs time and maturation, and this is very precious, what is going on. Mubarak is happy that people are taking political responsibility.”

The Islamic fundamentalist Al Shaab, organ of the Socialist Labor Party, exercised its right of free speech recently with a front-page banner headline reproduced from a government newspaper nine years ago in which Mubarak vowed he would never seek a third term.

The years that elapsed between then and Mubarak’s acceptance of a third-term nomination from 444 of the National Democratic Party-dominated Parliament’s 454 members have marked Egypt’s return to the helm of Arab leadership, the beginning of the transition to a market economy and the most serious wave of Islamic violence in the nation’s history.

The government--and a wide spectrum of Egyptians--sees Mubarak as the thin line that stands between modernization and civil war. The regime argues that to step aside now, or even to open the doors to full-fledged democracy, would be to invite the chaos that has plagued Eastern Europe after communism and neighboring Algeria with its political participation in the Islamic movement.

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“In this country, there is a great majority, and this great majority is with Mubarak and his policy,” Beltagui said. “Why? Because here the people have a good memory. They lived in the first time of his getting to office, they knew there was a climate of a real civil war.”

After Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak started “a new page of national reconciliation,” in which he freed more than 1,500 leaders of all political parties from prison and “instilled the democratic mechanism of consultation,” Beltagui noted.

The parties opposing a third Mubarak term included: Wafd; Labor, which is linked with the Muslim Brotherhood; Nasserite, and Progressive Unionist.

They argued that a Parliament not legally elected--most opposition parties boycotted the last elections, handing the Nationalists their huge majority--could not legally nominate Mubarak. They sought a constitutional change to allow direct presidential elections, instead of the referendum that will say yes or no to Mubarak in October.

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While their opposition may have been symbolic--a signal to Mubarak that his policies must change--critics do seem unified in demanding an end to the state of emergency Egypt has been operating under for 12 years.

Martial law has not only been used to round up Islamic extremists but also other opposition figures who have been detained and questioned; unorthodox writers have also been jailed, and critics from both ends of the political spectrum have been tortured.

Critics say Mubarak has isolated himself at the top and, by not naming a vice president, has precluded any potential challenger.

It was widely rumored in Egyptian political circles that a recent scandal involving Abdel Halim abu Ghazala, charismatic former defense minister, and a bombshell named Lucy Artine led to the former military officer’s defrocking, not because of corruption but because he was Mubarak’s only potential rival.

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Unsettling the regime more than any other single factor has been the rash of bombings, shootings and other Islamic violence that has plagued Egypt for nearly a year. Attacks on foreign tourists have sent tourism revenue plummeting by more than $1 billion.

The government has repeatedly lashed out at external forces, accusing Iran and Sudan of arming and training terrorists bent on the overthrow of the Egyptian regime. But in recent months it has shown itself more willing to accept part of the blame.

Mubarak officials also know that the tide of public opinion has begun to turn away from Islamic extremists and toward the government.

Most people were indifferent when the attacks were mounted against security forces. Now that they have begun to strike the crucial tourist industry and maim ordinary Egyptians, sympathy for the Islamists is on the wane.

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